March 2

GUEST CURATOR: Samuel Birney

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

New-York Gazette (March 2, 1767).


Today’s advertisement offered “BOSEM, OR, ORIENTAL BALSAM,” described as a “CEPHALIC CORDIAL Medicine” that imbued the user with strength and energy for the heart, body, and spirit as well as cured certain diseases. This product supposedly revitalized the nervous system and dealt with ailments gained from old age like poor sight, dizziness, weak joints, shaking limbs, and loss of strength. The medicine was used for to treat fainting, strokes, epilepsy, and other diseases affecting the brain. D. Ingram also claimed that it helped reduce dangers both prior to pregnancy and those that arose after giving birth. The Bosem was also useful for dealing with tropical diseases picked up in the West Indies.

This sort of product was commonly referred to as patent medicine, a trend dating back to medieval Europe. A patent medicine was a product advertised by swindlers and apothecaries, whose “noisily hawking, or ‘quacking,’” gave rise to the term quack. Americans brought patent medicines over from Europe, and even developed their own home grown varieties, although there was preference for European products. Patent medicine had strong ties to newspaper advertisements, sometimes purchasing much of the advertising space, thus filling both the swindler and editor’s pockets.

Jim Cox states that the appearance of patent medicines actually held more credibility than the contents, with American producers reusing old bottles of European products and refilling them with either addictive or foul tasting substances before selling them off as the original product. The bosem advertised here originated in the ancient world as a perfume, although later apothecaries used it in medicines in the Far East before, if the advertisement is to believed, it spread throughout the British empire in the 1760s.



Providers of goods and services who resided in England rarely placed advertisements in American newspapers. Among the exceptions, purveyors of patent medicines most commonly hawked (or quacked about) their wares in colonial publications – or at least seemed to do so. Although all but the final two lines of this notice seem to have been composed by D. Ingram, “Man Midwife, Professor of Surgery and Anatomy, and Surgeon to Christ’s Hospital” in London, McLean and Treat most likely made the arrangements with the printer of the New-York Gazette to insert the advertisement. Note that the description of the medicine was dated October 1, 1765, more than a year before this appearance among advertisements in the New-York Gazette. Ingram likely distributed the same copy to newspapers in London as well as agents in the English provinces and American colonies whenever he made arrangements to enter new markets.

As Sam explains, patent medicines were particularly susceptible to counterfeiting. Producers and sellers of these nostrums worked out various means to assure potential customers who read their advertisements that they would indeed acquire authentic medicines. As this advertisement suggests, one method was making their concoctions available exclusively from select agents. In the case of Ingram’s Bosem, this notice informed residents of New York that it was “Sold by M‘LEAN, and TREAT only.” Similarly, Dr. Hill, who peddled a variety of medicines (each for different symptoms – none seemed to be the cure all Ingram purported the Bosem to be), placed a notice in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette announcing that he had “appointed Messrs. CARNE and WILSON my agents, for the sale of my medicines in CAROLINA.” Limiting the number of sanctioned sellers of particular patent medicines allowed producers to exert control over the distribution of their products, protecting their reputation from fraudulent imitators. It may have also allowed the designated agents to charge a premium thanks to their exclusive access to the product.

January 23

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

South-Carolina and American General Gazette (January 23, 1767).

A List of Dr. HILL’s Medicines sold by Messrs. Carne and Wilson.”

Patent medicines became a staple of American advertising about as soon as the first weekly newspapers were published in the early eighteenth century, so much so that historians of advertising have focused attention disproportionately on these quack remedies. Why not? The advertisements hawked potions with odd names, emphasized strange ingredients, and made wild claims today considered obviously false, making later generations marvel that anyone could have possibly been influenced by that sort of marketing.

Yet patent medicines were indeed popular in eighteenth-century England and America, perhaps the first class of commodities to develop distinct and recognizable brand names. For instance, John Hill’s “PECTORAL BALSAM OF HONEY,” the first of half a dozen medicines listed in today’s advertisement, appeared in advertisements printed in newspapers throughout the colonies. Both apothecaries and shopkeepers announced that they imported and sold elixirs produced by Hill and other English “doctors,” assuming prospective customers recognized names and products like Anderson’s Pills, Batemans’s Drops, Stoughton’s Bitters, and Turlington’s Balsam. Unlike most purveyors of patent medicines, Hill, a botanist and author, did hold a medical degree.

Given the ease of counterfeiting patent medicines in a marketplace without formal regulation of medical supplies, Hill and others made various efforts to protect both their reputations and their share of the market. For instance, Hill designated specific agents authorized to sell his patent medicines. His advertisement first identified the men who operated on his behalf before listing and describing the remedies they sold to colonists: “I HAVE appointed Messrs. CARNE and WILSON my agents, for the sale of my medicines in CAROLINA; and all persons may be supplied wholesale and retail by them.” Others in Charleston and beyond sold patent medicines, including Hill’s various nostrums, but Carne and Wilson sought to benefit from having a seal of approval from Dr. Hill himself as they sold “ESSENCE OF WATER DOCK,” “TINCTURE OF VALERIAN,” and other medicines compounded by the famous doctor.